“Well, Clifford, I can’t really tell you that this is wrong?”
After exchanging the normal greetings and pleasantries, this is what my United Methodist pastor said to me regarding The Way International (TWI), the anti-Trinitarian ministry to which I was on the verge of committing my allegiance and support.
This wonderful man had been my pastor since I was in Jr. High School. He was a very talented, creative, and passionate preacher, a very bright and capable leader. He led our church in a much needed building project aptly called, “An Endeavor in Faith.” As a result, it seems, this little rural church with one of the most beautiful views of Pilot Mountain grew from being on a charge with another church into a single station appointment (for those unfamiliar with Methodistese this means the church went from sharing a pastor with another church to supporting it’s own full-time pastor). It also eventually started an after school program in the new building and has been one of the strongest rural Methodist congregations ever since. It has certainly changed a lot since I was in elementary school, when it was on a three point charge with two little churches in Pinnacle. At any rate, this pastor was one of the brightest young Methodist preachers, who would go on to pastor some of the largest churches in the Western NC conference.
As we sat there in his study in the lower level of that beautiful new building, his statement, that he couldn’t really say TWI was wrong disarmed me and relaxed much of the anxiety I was feeling, not only about having that conversation with him, but also about the potential imprudence of getting further involved in this group I didn’t really know all that much about . As I said, I intuitively sensed the enormity of the decision about which, by this time, I had become more aware of just how drastic it would be. The folks withTWI made no bones about how drastic and stark the difference was between them and mainstream “Trinitarian” churches; yet my Methodist pastor didn’t seem to see the difference as starkly, perhaps due to the influences of ethical relativism and religious pluralism, and a commitment to “theological diversity” present in mainline denominations and seminaries. Who knows?
Nevertheless, in spite of his initial charitable statement, to his credit, he did go on to try to explain to me why the doctrine of the Trinity was so important to the Christian faith, and even how it was heresy to deny it. My almost 20 year old, not well-read mind wasn’t quite sure what the word “heresy” meant, but I knew it wasn’t good.
By this time, however, through conversations with folks in TWI and by reading Wierwille’s book with the not-so-subtle title, “Jesus Christ is Not God,” I had been quite effectively inoculated against Trinitarian arguments: The word Trinity never occurs in the Bible; if Jesus was God then who did he pray to?; the Bible says no one has seen God at any time (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12), yet plenty of people saw Jesus, etc. I had already memorized many of the TWI prooftexts. As I voiced those objections, my pastor seemed unsure how to reply.
He did mention that in John 17:1-5 Jesus speaks of the glory that he had with the Father before the world began; but I had bought into TWI’s argument that Jesus as the Word, only existed in the foreknowledge of God rather than in reality. When he questioned whether someone could be saved who didn’t believe that Jesus is God, I insisted that Romans 10:9 doesn’t say that someone has to believe Jesus is God in order to be saved; it just says that you have to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, which seems to make a clear distinction between Jesus and God. I had also bought into the TWI argument that for Jesus the title Lord was not a title of Divinity but only a title of respect for one who is superior in rank. In short, these arguments were compelling to me because of the apparent logical contradictions that result when you pit the humanity of Christ against the Divinity of Christ, and conflate the persons of the Trinity with the Being of the Trinity. Besides if the Trinity really wasn’t Biblical then why bother with it in the first place?
As our conversation began to wind down, my Methodist pastor gave me a book on “Christian Doctrine” of the same title by Shirley C. Guthrie (1994). Later at home I zeroed in on a passage in chapter five under the subheading, “Biblical Roots of the Doctrine of the Trinity.” There I read on page 76: “The Bible does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity. Neither the word “trinity” itself no such language as ‘one-in-three,’ ‘three-in-one,’ one ‘essence’ (or ‘substance’, and three ‘persons’ is biblical language.” These two sentences played right into the hands of TWI whose own narrative of church history insisted that the Trinity was of pagan influence and imposed on the church via a former pagan emperor, Constantine, by force. Although I read the rest of the section in which Guthrie goes on to say that the church didn’t simply invent the doctrine but used the available language and philosophical concepts to interpret what the Bible actually does say about God and Jesus, and that the Bible does indeed say some things about God that make the doctrine of the Trinity necessary, I rashly concluded that TWI was right; and I wanted to be right too; I wanted to be “Biblical”! And I probably just wanted some relief from the tension and confusion I was trying to work through.
What I would like to think began as a desire to know God and be right with God, had already begun to morph into a desire to just be right over others. The former is a recipe for humility; the later a recipe for pride and its ugly cousin contempt. I took the plunge; I committed my self to the teachings and ministry of TWI.
The next day I drove over to the home of the TWI leader in King and excitedly debriefed with him and his wife about the conversation I had had with my Methodist pastor. We all discussed just how silly and spiritually blind people who believed in the Trinity are; and of course just how enlightened we were to just simply believe the “plain teaching of the Word.” I was in. All in. And that meant, to the angst of my parents, Methodist pastor, and some church members who had known me since I was a baby, I was out of the mainstream church.
Sometime later that summer, a wonderful man – one of the most devout Christians I know – who had been my Sunday school teacher, the lay leader of my home church, and even my driver’s education teacher in high school came to talk with me. By this time it was too late though. I was already a better apologist for TWI than most regular church members, and perhaps some pastors, are for orthodoxy. I popped off prooftexts left and right and blithely dismissed his own explanations of Scripture, which he insisted confirmed the deity of Christ. But I was already beyond reach.
At another point that summer of 1995 the laid-back fellow, whom I had meet in the room in the basement of ECU at the public explanation of the PFAL class, called me up and invited me to go to a week-long festival and teaching conference at the headquarters of TWI in New Knoxville, Ohio called “The Rock of Ages.” At first, I declined because that would cause me to miss a week of my summer job, on which I depended to make a little extra money for college expenses. Again, for the second time I was challenged to believe God that it would all work out and that He would make up for the week of missed income.
By this time, I had been taught full-well TWI’s doctrine called the “law of believing.” This, Wierwille taught, was a principle written into the laws of the universe that if we believe positively and confess with our lips positively according to what is available from God’s Word then we shall absolutely receive whatever it is that we are believing for and confessing (prooftext Matt. 21:22). According to TWI, the law part of it also has a dark side because if you think and speak negatively and begin to worry an become fearful then you will reap negative consequences (prooftext Job 3:25). It’s a law, he said, that works for Christian and non-Christian alike. This was the second time I was challenged to “believe for” something like this, but it wouldn’t be the last. Eventually, I would do my fair share of challenging others like this as well.
So I went with this fellow and his wife and son to “The Rock of Ages” at TWI headquarters, the longest trip this poor country boy had been on since me and my folks visited my father’s buddy from the Korean War in Palm Beach Florida in our 1967 white, four-door, Chrysler Newport when I was in the fourth grade.
There in New Knoxville I heard the president of TWI, Rev. L Craig Martindale, who had been installed by Wierwille himself in the mid 1980’s, rail against the rampant “idolatry” of the Trinitarianism that was being promoted in “stained glass whore houses” (i.e. churches), as he called them. The bluntness of his rhetoric matched the intensity of his convictions. He pulled no punches. What a difference just a few months made since I had been slightly perplexed by the offhand remark of Wierwille in the PFAL class?
I listened intently to the blazing rhetoric, increasingly impressed with the Greek and Hebrew words that were expounded upon along with the other seemingly razor sharp “principles of Biblical research” propounded by TWI that – as Wierwille would say – make the Word fit like a hand in a glove when “rightly divided” as it says in 2 Timothy 2:15. I was being built up in my knowledge and appreciation of the Word according to TWI and I was loving it. I was enamored with my new found knowledge, a knowledge that set me and others in TWI apart from the vast majority of Christians, not to mention the rest of the world. It felt really good to be right! But feeling right does not necessarily mean truly being right with God.
Nonetheless, I continued to grow in my knowledge of “the Word” according to TWI. Over the next couple of years I quickly advanced through their multiple classes and seminars and devoured all of their books along with countless other weekly teachings from Martindale, which were recorded on little white cassette tapes. I also faithfully read the current articles from their bi-monthly, “The Way Magazine.” During the time that I got involved I actually got to take the PFAL advanced class taught by Martindale before it was faded out along with the PFAL video class taught by Wierwille. Not long at all after I got involved the entire PFAL series was replaced with a new series called “The Way of Abundance and Power.” TWI has a foundational, intermediate, and advanced class, along with some other special topics classes. I quickly gained a reputation as one of the red-hottest and most committed TWI believers.
I excelled through everything they had to offer in the first few years; and I quickly reestablished an official TWI campus organization on the ECU campus. I also served as an assistant coordinator of a couple of different TWI home groups eventually becoming a home group leader (once called Twig coordinators but by the time I was in the position it was called “household fellowship coordinator”) for a while. I even had definite aspirations of eventually going into TWI’s minister training program called “The Way Corp.” It seemed to be the way that I would fulfill a call to ministry that I sensed was on my life since the time I was a painfully shy, anxiety-ridden elementary school student.
This was the most exciting time in my life up to that point. I was filled with a incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm, directed by the all important purpose of “moving the Word” (i.e. spreading the message and ministry of TWI). I made some wonderful friends and meet some truly accomplished and quite remarkable people, licensed psychotherapists, a PHD from MIT, small business owners, former college and pro football players, a PHD in child psychology, public school educators and counselors, police officers, a former Marine Corp helicopter pilot, many smart people from all walks of life. I share this to answer the oft asked question of what kind of people would get involved in such an organization. I was one of them.
I was in and I was growing by leaps and bounds, but as I would eventually discover, I was growing in a special kind of knowledge that builds one up in pride with the corresponding fruit of contempt for others. And you know what the word says about pride?
It’s really quite amazing to think about how much of this part of my life hung on that one conversation with my United Methodist pastor. Who would ever think that a theological conversation could impact the life of a poor country boy who grew up in a junk yard so much?!
I took the plunge; I chose The Way, The Way International that is; and I was being steeped in pride. It would take a miracle to save me from the fall. Stay tuned …
Proverbs 16:18 (KJV) “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”